The Last Sunday after the Epiphany - 6 March 2011
II Peter 1:16-21
Saint Matthew 17:1-9
BACKGROUND – The Books of Moses I
In many respects the Pentateuch, or “The Five Books of Moses” (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is not so much a document handed down from the hand of Moses, as it is a device for reminding a people of their religious heritage. Indeed, that is what “Torah” (another word for this collection) means: teaching, doctrine, instruction, or law. All of these activities are represented in the collection. It is not likely that Moses wrote any of this, but rather editors during the so-called “Persian Period” set about to document the historic faith, practice, and law of the Hebrews. In a time when the Temple was in ruins, the northern lands had been resettled by the Assyrians with peoples from other lands and faiths, and the land of Judea was being resettled by the Jews under the gracious policies of Cyrus the Mede, it was important to remember what was, so that a reconstituted people could walk into the future.
The LORD said to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction." So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, "Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them."
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
|Michelangelo - "Moses"|
There are so many symbols in this text that we need to set them apart so as to better understand both setting and text. The first is Moses himself, the leader, the prophet, the “type-of-Christ”, the lawgiver. The second is the mountain, the quintessential home of gods, a model for “Mt. Zion” (Jerusalem) and the Mount of the Transfiguration. The third is time, the six days (Creation), the seventh day (God rests/relates), the forty days and nights (the Flood, the wandering in the wilderness, the days of Lent), and finally the fire/cloud (the cloud that follows Israel in the wilderness, the shekinah – God’s divine presence with Israel). This reading is so closely attached to the Gospel for today with its divine presence, the presence of Moses, and the transfiguration of Jesus. It is interesting to note that the Law is given, carved in rock as a sign of its eternal presence. It is also notable that even as the Law is being given, elders are stationed at the base of the mountain to dispense law and justice to those who need it. It is a continuous scene of justice and righteousness.
Breaking open Exodus:
- Why did ancient peoples associate mountaintops with the gods?
- How do you experience God’s glory in your life?
- In what ways have the commandments transfigured your life?
Psalm 99 Dominus regnavit
The LORD is King;
let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.
The LORD is great in Zion; *
he is high above all peoples.
Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; *
he is the Holy One.
"O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob."
Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One.
Moses and Aaron among his priests,
and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
they called upon the LORD, and he answered them.
He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.
O LORD our God, you answered them indeed; *
you were a God who forgave them,
yet punished them for their evil deeds.
Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God
and worship him upon his holy hill; *
for the LORD our God is the Holy One.
|Enthroned upon the Cherubim|
There are two vantage points in this psalm. The first looks to eternity and to the eternal and cosmic reign of God. The reaction of creation is simple – it trembles and it shakes. God is enthroned upon the cherubim (and here we should not think of the Italian cherubs nor really of any human form but rather a winged lion with a human face) and rules the world. The remaining verses (2-5) describe the cosmic virtues with which this God blesses creation: justice, equity, and righteousness. From verse 6 on, our vantage point changes and looks back on the history of God’s people. The priestly service of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel is described, as well as God’s presence in the pillar of cloud, and in the words of the Law. This psalm is easily tied to both the scene in the First Reading and the Gospel.
Breaking open Psalm 99
1. What evidence do you see for God’s rule in the world?
2. If you were writing the psalm and wished to evidence the cosmic virtues that ruled the world in your past, what would you cite?
3. In what kind of glory is God present for you?
II Peter 1:16-21
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
|Carolingian Ivory - "Christ in Majesty"|
With this reading we leave the continuing readings from I Corinthians and move to a reading that shares in the themes of the day, namely the Transfiguration. Whereas there is evidence to commend the notion that I Peter was actually dictated by Peter to another, II Peter seems likely not to have been written by Peter but rather composed from elements from the Book of Jude. In II Peter we have a notion of being in a post-apostolic period, where the writings of Paul are considered scripture, the condemnation of false (probably Gnostic) teachers takes a great deal of the book, and where there is a discussion of the delay of the second coming of Christ. Our reading today consists of two litmus tests about false vs. apostolic teaching, which anticipates a later argument about the delay of the parousia (the second coming. The first argument is about the testimony of the Transfiguration (see today’s Gospel) as evidence that Christ is already in glory. The second looks back to the prophetic witness (seen in the Gospel with the presence of Moses and Elijah). The witness is authentic, the write states, because it is truly prophetic – a sign and word from God, not a human word or invention.
Breaking open II Peter:
- The author speaks of being an “eyewitness” of God’s majesty. In what way have you been an eyewitness?
- What voices do you hear proclaiming Christ’s glory, and confirming his role in your life?
- How are “men and women moved by the Holy Spirit” in our time?
Saint Matthew 17:1-9
Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."
The immediate context of this reading is the conflicting witness of Simon Peter at Caesarea Philippi. On the one hand Peter acknowledges Jesus as the Messiah, and then on the other discourages from his divine task. Six days latter (the length of creation) Peter is present with James and John on a “high mountain.” There Jesus is seen with Moses and Elijah, and is transformed before them. And if that were not enough, we have the voice from the cloud (see the first reading) confirming Jesus status. Peter is still uncertain, wanting to preserve the moment and not wishing to see what are the consequences of his belief and confession. Jesus makes it quite real for them, for the Christ will be revealed to them not in glory of a theophany, but rather in the hard vision of a Jesus raised from death. Jesus actions are Easter actions “he came and touched them”, and “get up and do not be afraid.” Peter’s faith contains a broad spectrum of human reality, and we, like he, need to understand the breadth and the obligation of what we believe.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- Why does Jesus ask the disciples to “tell no one about the vision”?
- What is the symbolic value of the presence of Moses and Elijah?
- How does the raising of “the Son of Man” change things?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
O God, who before the passion of your only begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.